Exclusive Interview: How India’s Prime Minister engages 1.4bn people

By Medha Basu and Chia Jie Lin

Arvind Gupta discusses his vision for India’s national engagement platform, MyGov.

Image: PM Modi/Instagram - CC BY 2.0

“My dear countrymen,” says India’s Prime Minister Modi on his monthly radio show, discussing topics ranging from sports and subsidies to respect for parents. According to one estimate by the All India Radio, two in every 10 Indians - or about 260 million people - have listened to this show.

The Prime Minister believes in citizen engagement: he has his own app; uses social media extensively; and is almost omni-present in his own country. While reaching 1.4 billion people across India may be a Herculean task, PM Modi believes it can be mediated with technology. He encourages listeners to give their suggestions to him through MyGov, a national digital engagement platform launched just two months after his watershed electoral victory in 2014.

The person who has made this happen is Arvind Gupta, chief digital strategist of PM Modi’s 2014 campaign who now runs citizen engagement initiatives across the government. “We’re bringing democracy to every nook and corner of India, and governance to your doorstep,” he says. GovInsider caught up with Gupta to learn how Modi’s administration is engaging citizens across India.

Why MyGov?

As citizens increasingly use social media to voice discontent, government has found it must keep up. “Elections are no longer happening once every five years, but every two days, because the social media world is where people are engaged and discussing,” he says. Modi’s administration is looking to harness the power of social media for citizen engagement, in the same way digital efforts won the election for him.

MyGov was created as a response to this, opening up policy-making to the masses. MyGov is a website where citizens can make suggestions on national policies, join discussions and polls, and take part in tasks posted by the government. “Policymakers in New Delhi were limited by the set of comments they would get. Now that limit is broken,” Gupta says. Activities range from collecting ideas for new projects, comments on upcoming policies, or even competitions for citizens to design new governments apps and slogans.
“Policymakers in New Delhi were limited by the set of comments they would get. Now that limit is broken.”
MyGov also conducts town hall meetings where people can discuss policies face-to-face with officials; and there is also a toll-free hotline for people to share their opinions, allowing it to reach out to citizens with little to no internet access. “Even if you're not connected digitally, you can make a phone call and voice your opinion,” Gupta says. In 2017, approximately 860 million citizens had no internet access, according to Statista.

Public agencies must announce their upcoming policies on MyGov to find out how well they are received and find ways to improve them, he adds. “By default, any policy that we are going to announce has to go up for public consultation on MyGov,” he says. This is “not mandatory by law, but it is a best practice”, he adds.

As policy-makers receive citizen inputs in real-time, MyGov’s website also dramatically shortens the typical policy-making process from months to hours. “If you put out a draft policy, you have tons of people acting upon it. You can have a decision or a policy election every few hours,” he adds.
“You can have a decision or a policy election every few hours."

Real-time policy elections

On MyGov’s website, citizens can now join annual national budget discussions, share their opinions on how sectors like education should be funded, and public agencies will incorporate their opinions into the discussion. “Citizen input may not be included in the final budget, but at least their suggestions are now part of the discussion.”

One successful example of this collaboration is SWAYAM, an online education platform launched by the human resources ministry. Students can join and attend online courses offered by universities across India, so long as they have internet access. “This was an idea by a MyGov champion, and it became part of the budget proposal,” says Gupta. SWAYAM now serves 2.5 million students across India - one of its largest online education platforms.

Another original idea was to equip post offices with the ability to offer basic financial services, like deposits and remittance. Access to financial services is a huge challenge in India, where many don’t live near banks. But post offices are much more prevalent in rural areas. A MyGov contributor suggested that they be fit with banking services to serve rural citizens. As a result, in August, the India Post Payments Bank (IPPB) will go live with 650 branches and around 170 million accounts.

In neighbouring Bangladesh, the government has launched a nationwide mobile payments system in computer centres, providing banking services to rural citizens. The system also allows citizens to purchase goods and services via SMS, said Anir Chowdhury, who heads Bangladesh’s public sector innovation agency, in an exclusive interview with GovInsider.

The road ahead

As MyGov’s following expands, it faces growing challenges in processing feedback and reaching out to citizens. Its hotline receives a huge volume of calls daily, making it hard to process all these feedback efficiently - a difficulty compounded by the many languages and dialects spoken across the country.

Gupta’s team wants to use artificial intelligence to understand these multilingual suggestions. “We need the capacity to understand multiple languages”, he says, and “make sure regional voices can be better interpreted, with a technology backend to understand inputs,” he adds.

Another problem lies in prioritising feedback on the website. Posts can attract thousands of comments, so how are agencies deciding which feedback to prioritise?

MyGov’s algorithms analyse comments to understand what works and what does not, before they are passed on to government officials for consideration. “We will rank them using our own algorithms for relevance and giving it to them so that's easier to consume the data,” he says. However, selectivity is a key issue for these algorithms, and MyGov needs to make sure that no comments are excluded for their political affiliations.

Next, MyGov also needs to ensure that all citizens can offer their input. It has launched a speech-to-text function on its website, so that people with disabilities and people with poor internet can easily make suggestions.

But Gupta believes that MyGov can do more for inclusivity. “The biggest challenge ahead is making sure that it is as diverse as it can, be it for online and offline languages, the digitally-connected and unconnected, or women and children.” One key problem in India is women’s access to the internet. 71% of men have internet access, while only 29% of women do, according to a 2015 study by Statista.

In the past four years, MyGov has gained 6.3 million registered subscribers and has collected over 388 million comments from 779 discussions, according to its performance dashboard. But with an election and new discussions every day, there is much more Modi’s administration needs to do to serve its citizens.

Vasudha Thirani, Mentor at MyGov India and Senior Policy Advisor for the Digital India Foundation, will be speaking at Innovation Labs World. Register here to join us on 25 September in Singapore